LOS ANGELES -- The fact that this city's black politicians neither foresaw nor fully understand the riots is a key to figuring out what really happened here.

These black leaders reject what others in the political structure say: that the King trial was the trigger but not the true cause of the rioting. What's behind the Los Angeles tragedy is deep-seated social disorganization in the inner city that Jesse Jackson imitators here ignore in heaping blame on George Bush and Daryl Gates.

As we reported from here last year, the brutal beating of Rodney King by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department was used by Gates's foes to force him out as police chief. But in so doing, they elevated the trial to a level that unleashed forces beyond their control.

The acquittals of the four policemen were greeted by shocked disapprobation even from conservative Republicans, but black leaders -- including Mayor Tom Bradley -- were the most strident. "The mayor has a lot to answer for by saying how shocked he was by the {jury's} decision," a white city councilman told us.

But to suggest that harsh rhetoric torched Los Angeles is to misread reality, according to police intelligence. Left-wing activists who protested in front of police headquarters Wednesday night had no role in what followed.

Systematic burning was engineered by the city's pernicious gangs, which suspended their vicious civil war to unite in en masse arson. Football great Jim Brown, who has close relations with the gangs, correctly says they are a mystery to black politicians. But to believe that the riots were politically inspired, it is necessary to accept Brown's dubious premise that the gangs have a programmatic agenda. Targeting Korean shop owners smacks more of racism than program.

The looters who followed were even less political. Families of all colors who streamed into stores to steal confirmed Prof. Edward Banfield's judgment in the '60s that rioters were after "fun and profit." The holiday mood heightened Thursday after it became clear the LAPD would not arrest, much less shoot. Few looters even pretended they were carrying away sofas to avenge Rodney King.

Nevertheless, rioters were given revolutionary status by such black politicians as State Sen. Diane Watson and City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. They wandered from one television channel to another deploring what the King verdict had brought, but they were not seen on the streets imploring the mob to go home.

The descent into anarchy seemed to puzzle Rep. Maxine Waters, a Jackson ally whose congressional district was ravaged. Her first response to the riot was to join Jackson in lobbying the Justice Department to file civil rights charges against the four policemen. Not only is this unlikely to succeed, but Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner says in the long run it would not truly restore civility and understanding here. Jackson and Waters, blaming the riots on Gates and Bush, flew here as the police finally started arresting looters. Waters promptly took exception to Mayor Bradley's verdict that the rioters were "criminals" and "gangsters." Waters insisted on calling their handiwork "an insurrection."

Actually, Los Angeles on Thursday felt like a city awaiting a conquering army composed of brutal criminals. "If the feds can save Kuwait, why can't they defend L.A.?" asked veteran Democratic operative Joe Cerrell as the mob came within two blocks of his home.

The LAPD cavalry arrived in time to save Cerrell's house, along with old Hollywood landmarks and lush Beverly Hills. But not before black politicians who had long denounced Gates for using excessive force grumbled that he was taking a soft line to make his critics look bad.

The city's sick economy faces thousands more jobs lost and investment discouraged in the inner city. The gangs are stronger than ever, race relations more poisonous. In response, black leaders call the riots a "wake-up call" and push more money for government programs that don't work. That is the wrong lesson of the Los Angeles tragedy.